Saxophonist Colin Stetson is a game-changer

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      The problem with avant-garde music, at least in terms of audience appeal, just might be that the recordings aren’t good enough. Colin Stetson, however, has found a way to fix that.

      According to the Michigan-born saxophonist, whose performance credits include work with Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Laurie Anderson, innovative musicians need to be a lot more imaginative when it comes time to document their work.

      “Most people just throw up a couple of stereo mikes, take a two-dimensional snapshot of what’s happening in the room, and call it a record,” he explains from his Montreal home. But when Stetson decided to record the solo pieces he’d been working up over a 15-year period, he opted to follow a different path. Booking time in Montreal’s renowned Hotel2Tango studio, he plugged a different microphone into every one of the facility’s 24 channels, in effect putting his alto, tenor, and bass saxophones under an audio microscope.

      The resulting music, as heard on the Polaris Prize–nominated New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, is hallucinatory. Stetson’s approach is unquestionably cutting-edge, having as much to do with contemporary electronic composition as with jazz, but the sound is as physical as the best rock or rap recordings. The mechanical clicks and thunks of his horns are transmuted into a powerful rhythm section; his breathing becomes a wash of background texture; the tunes themselves loop and twine to hypnotic effect. Through the magic of technology, and without any overdubbing whatsoever, the saxophonist succeeds in turning himself into a very 21st-century one-man band.

      “Basically, I was just problem-solving,” says Stetson, who’ll make several Vancouver International Jazz Festival appearances this weekend. “I wanted to isolate all the different sounds that I was hearing, and then be able to make a three-dimensional version that would be specific to the recorded medium.”

      Problem solved, then. Stetson’s latest record is to the typical solo sax record what Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland was to rock: a game-changing expansion of how the recording studio can be used.

      “There’s always a way around something,” says Stetson. “I know there’s going to be limitations, but there’s always some way around those limitations to make something that I didn’t know was possible, possible. That continues to be a real thrill for me—and it’s the foundation of everything I do.”

      Colin Stetson plays with Norwegian saxophonist Mats Gustafsson at Performance Works on Friday (July 1). On Saturday (July 2), he gives an afternoon workshop and a solo concert at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, before opening for Fond of Tigers at Venue.